“What was the likelihood my adopted daughter would have my father’s hazel eyes and my mother’s mental illness?”
Thus begins Dr. Rachel Pruchno’s journey through the world of mental illness, starting with her mother’s undiagnosed bipolar disorder and eventual suicide, graduating to her daughter’s diagnosis of ADHD, bipolar, borderline personality disorder and inability to recognize that she was sick, and finally culminating in her daughter discontinuing her treatment and leaving home.
In Surrounded By Madness: A Memoir of Mental Illness and Family Secrets, Pruchno weaves together a collection of vignettes that portray her as a quiet, gentle girl who lives in fear that her mother’s sickness will one day claim her life, before fast-forwarding to roughly 25 years later, when Pruchno adopts her first child, Sophie.
As the years roll by and Sophie grows up, Pruchno documents her daughter’s deterioration, her self-destructive behaviors and the chaos Sophie inflicts on their family in detail. There is no sugar-coating, no happy ending here. Instead, the reader witnesses the reality of many families of people affected by mental illness: that their loved one is unable to see that she is sick or that she needs help. We also view their fury at a health care system that is fundamentally broken.
The combination of silence and the helplessness of watching mental illness threaten to destroy a family make for a book that’s hard to put down. You can’t help but sympathize, not only with Pruchno and her husband, but also with Sophie. Pruchno does an admirable job of stressing that as aggravating and dangerous as Sophie can be, it is very clear she is at the mercy of not one but four mental conditions, each contributing towards a climax that is as shattering as it is necessary.
Pruchno’s call to stop hiding is poignant, as is her appeal to change the mental health system to include family members in the recovery process. By the conclusion of the memoir, it is obvious that mental health care has not progressed much between the time of Pruchno’s mother’s suicide, and the final stages of Sophie’s unraveling. And yet, Pruchno has taken an important first step towards empowering families to stop hiding and start talking when mental illness strikes.
By Simone McKitterick, NAMI Communications Intern